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TSÉNTSAK and SPIRIT HELPERS:

The Training of the Shaman by the Jungle Plants


This article deals with some features of the Amazonian shamanic apprenticeship among the Shuar, Achuar and Shipibo-Conibo peoples.
What is told here is quite incomplete and I recommend everybody not to use this material for a "do-it-yourself" apprenticeship. Shamanic training needs a shaman teacher and this would be still true even if the article were quite comprehensive. Shamanism cannot be learned by reading.

In the Western Amazon rainforest (Peru and Ecuador) the shaman-to-be spends a lot of time in the Jungle being taught by the Plant Spirits. The phrase "being taught" is often misunderstood by Westerners and most of people thinks that it's about gaining knowledge, e.g. on the true nature of the Universe, on the art of shamanizing or on healing with plants.
Actually in the shamanic view gaining knowledge is never distinguished from gaining Power.
Conversely, the power you get always brings (or should bring) an increase in knowledge, which allows you to properly handle the power itself.
This merge of power and knowledge is the true shamanic education and makes up what natives refer to as the shaman's sabiduría (knowledge, wisdom).

Amazzonia
The inextricable tangle of plants in Amazonia may teach lots of secrets to the shaman willing to spend long hours, especially at night, in the jungle. (photo taken by the author in the Ecuatorian primary rainforest, district of Chininpi)

More exactly, however, in the early times of their training the shamans-to-be acquire some Powers along with few, poor instructions for their use and no information at all on what they actually are.
Later on they will get more detailed instructions on the Powers that they've been acquiring - but there are still some secrets they can't understand. Only in the last period, when they have been trained for a long time, spirits of great strength and wisdom finally will appear and give them the true, full shamanic wisdom.
It's the contrary of the Western educational approach, which first deepens theory before gradually moving to practice.

Tséntsaks or virotes

At the beginning, the shaman-to-be must travel to the Aquatic Worlds, origin of the power of water, which makes the plants grow and thrive in the jungle.
Water evaporates out of rivers and oceans to the clouds, then comes back down in rain which makes the plants grow.

All that is ruled by Aquatic World (a.k.a. Underwater World) Powers where the apprentice is supposed to descend. Aquatic Spirits can also be met with at night on a river bank, when the power of water is strongest, e.g. during a thunderstorm.
Among the Shuar and Achuar, the Lord of the Aquatic World is called Tsunki, originally meaning "a healer", because he also rules health and cure.
Tsunki is closely related to the Anaconda and in fact the Shipibo-Conibo, living in the Southernmost Amazon jungle, call him "the Giant Anaconda".
Tsunki or some other water spirit teach the apprentice an ancient and complex procedure to acquire the strong powers of the jungle plants.
Such powers are "spirit essences" of the plants, their souls in a way, which the Shipibo-Conibo call yoshín.
Even if they are a sort of Spirits, the apprentice can just use them and won't be able to communicate with them for long time yet. They are like a "fluid" not only flowing in plants, but in several natural phenomena. When walking in the jungle, you can sense their power, as a Conibo shaman tells:

"You sense the yoshín in the smell of the earth, in the hot vapors rising from rotten plants and trees after a heavy rain or resting on the ground at night, like a mist.
Here they come, you sense them and they are the yoshín spreading around restlessly and splashing here and there..."

The yoshín, whether from plants or other natural phenomena, mostly appear like bugs, reptiles and fish (but also like jaguars, crocodiles, dolphins and rocks ...), like "inanimate" beings, at times even like tools made by men such as knives, scissors and barbed wires.
That's because their power is similar to what they look like. It's not always easy to understand the relationship between the plant we know and its yoshíns, because this reality often differs from the other reality.
Some yoshíns are shields or weapons of defense and are used for protection, others are more aggressive and are used for attacking - when needed - or to cause and cure diseases.
When the shaman acquires them, they begin to live in his/her body, as they previously lived in the plant.

The Shuar and Achuar usually call them tséntsak, a term literally meaning the blowpipe thin bamboo darts.
Besides yoshín - which roughly means "invisible spirits" - the Shipibo-Conibo also call them virotes, meaning "darts" again.
The reason is that, when used as weapons or sent away on a mission, they change into small darts the shaman blows out of his/her mouth.
The tséntsak spirits are invisible (or only visible in a trance state), but whenever the shaman takes the full power of them, they'll become as strong as to materialize!


Powers of Tséntsaks

In reality tséntsaks or yoshíns are partly materialized, or rather they are on the border between material and immaterial worlds.
Many Shamans view them as material entities, but very small - and therefore usually invisible - ones.
Yet when their energy rises, they emit a white or colored glow, which can be seen in half-darkness and sometimes even in daylight. You can see them as dots or filaments or bright small "worms". When entering a trance, a shaman can even see their true form (i.e. insect, snake etc), which is probably too small to be seen in ordinary conditions.
Their energy rises when they get excited or, as shamans say, they "wake up".
Because they are half-material, they must be fed with tsank, a green wild tobacco growing in the Jungle - the shaman makes a cold brew of tsank and inhale or drink it. Another possible food is ayahuasca, an entheogenic (psychoactive) plant, whose decoction has been used all over the Amazon rainforest.
When fed, the tsentsak awake. But they can also wake up for other reasons: because of sensing a threat to their master (the shaman) or of having to give him a vision about something.

The powers of tséntsaks are many and manifold. Each has its own powers, e.g. to travel far away and see what happens in other places or the power to cut, like the tijera (scissors) tséntsak, which can be used to cut a sticky relationship, or the power to bring good luck and even the power to make someone fall in love as the músap tséntsak does.
Other tséntsaks, as already mentioned, act as a shield to protect from danger, as well as from a harmful influence.
Tséntsaks also have collective powers, like of having visions, or of seeing into the client's body "as if it were made of glass" (a sort of X-ray sight) and finding out disorders and diseases.

Some of the most important powers are those related to diseases, many tséntsaks, when shot at an enemy and plunged into their body, cause illness and sometimes death.
While using this evil power is only justifiable in time of war, to protect our own community, it's of importance to emphasize that every tséntsak is able to cure the same illnesses it can cause!
They are therefore widely used in the curandería (healing way), and are the main shamanic tools.

the pásuk and "people of the plants"

Until they master them, shamans-to-be are not able to communicate with their tséntsaks very well, not much better than with a swarm of bees.
Still worse, they'd know none of their powers, if some of them weren't already known in the tradition that the shaman teacher teaches during the day, before the student at nightfall goes back into the deep jungle.
However, after long months of training, one night tséntsaks will suddenly change into human beings, men, women, elders and children parading in front of the apprentice and explaining them further powers of each tséntsak.
The apprentice will be able to communicate with these beings, just like with a person of flesh and bones, and they will teach him/her the secret powers of plants night after night.
They look like humans of all ages, except some looking like animals or mixed creatures, and they are called pásuk by the Shuar and Achuar, while the Shipibo-Conibo call them jonibo, which just means "people" i.e. human-looking beings.
Some of them may be as powerful as to become visible out of trance and to materialize into real people or animals.
The shaman-to-be discovers in practice - not just in theory - that the pásuk are hidden "inside" or "behind" the tséntsaks he's owned for long and has partly learned to master.
The pásuk, as he will learn, are spirits dwelling in trees, in the top as well as in roots, and making up a flow of spirits, called by the Shipibo-Conibo the "gente - jonibo - de la planta" (people of the plant).
In each plant the jonibo are numerous and even organized according to a social system.

We need to emphasize that - contrary to what a Westerner would believe - there isn't a single Spirit for each single plant.
This is what is told in New Age neo-shamanic workshops because it meets the Westerners' expectations.
In the true reality instead, every single plant is inhabited by a flow of Spirits, many different immaterial beings, the jonibo, who have their own social organization.
Actually you may meet with a true town of Spirits inside the plant.
A town where the shaman-to-be goes and gets wisdom and power.

The yoshín or tséntsak are sometimes perceived by the apprentice as the powerful scent emanating from the jonibo or - as some shamans say - as the jonibo's "tools" or "weapons" - in a word, the People of the Plant's powers.
Just as people in every village have at their disposal a lot of weapons and tools, each plant has an amount of these powers.
However these are but images to depict the Other Reality - very different from this one - as something familiar.